Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Michelle de Kretser: The Hamilton Case (2003)

Edition:Vintage, 2004
Review number: 1471

The genre of post-colonial literary fiction has become one of the mainstays of the Booker Prize, with wins for several over the years. When starting to read The Hamilton Case, I thought that it was strange that this novel, set in Ceylon in the generation leading up to independence, had been overlooked by the judges  - and I am not the only one, as Hilary Mantel (herself now of course a double winner of the prize) suggests that it should have made it to the short list in her endorsement on the back cover.

Sam Obeysekere is a Ceylonese from a wealthy background, descendant of a family which has worked with the rulers of the island for centuries (hence the schoolyard taunt, "Obey by name, obey by nature). His father's profligate generosity destroys most of Sam's inheritance, but not before a (local) public school and then Oxford University education let him become a prominent lawyer, who then achieves fame by solving the murder case of the title, leading to the arrest of an Englishman for the killing. This all takes place against the background of nationalist unrest (parallel to, but less well known to me than, Ghandi's campaign in India), in which Sam's brother-in-law (and long term hated rival) Jaya plays a prominent role.

Much of the novel is told from Sam's point of view, but not all of it. I prefer the parts of the novel which are told by Sam, with observations which appear in the third party narrative such as "He gave no signs of understanding that his life had been a series of substitutions" being irritating brickbats from a writer who has shown herself able to use Sam's one-sided account to portray the relationship between Sam and Jaya with subtlety and humour.

The later parts of the novel become a different story, of madness and ghosts, but this is nothing like as powerful as the first half. I found myself no longer being engaged by a novel which initially seemed to be one of the best (excluding things I had read before) I was going to read in a while. Some of the short chapters remain atmospheric, but the real meat of this book is exhausted by page 121, the end of the second section and the Hamilton murder case itself.

Perhaps this change is partly deliberate: there have been many people who have lived lives of early promise and a brief flowering which then go nowhere - at least in some terms. But it is odd: to catalogue the life of a Sri Lankan who would have been closely associated with the British colonial regime in the period after independence could have been an interesting story. There is little of this to be gleaned from what Kretser chooses to write about, which is basically Sam's inability to relate to those close to him - his parents, his sister, his wife, and his son.

Perhaps Hilary Mantel only read the first half of the book; perhaps there is more to the second half than I saw - as I find Mantel unreadable myself, I am unlikely to appreciate the same things in fiction that she does. The best rating I can give The Hamilton Case is 6/10, despite the brilliance of the beginning.

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